Labor Day 2020: even this year, a lot of politics is local

Labor Day is the traditional start of the election campaign. While this is a quaint notion given that Donald Trump began running for reelection immediately upon being inaugurated, and Joe Biden has been running to replace him for going on two years, I’ll use it as a starting point for returning to my blog.

Labor Day is also a reminder that many of our current crises, and I’ll include our response to Covid-19, have roots in the Republican Party’s attack, going back 70 years to Taft-Hartley, on the rights of American workers to organize. If workers and the middle class of workers that unions created were receiving the share of the American economic pie that they received half a century ago, when unions set the agenda for wages and benefits, imagine how much less discontented Americans would be? Imagine how much less they’d be fighting among themselves for the scraps that fall from Wall Street’s table?

I have written primarily about politics from a local perspective for 20 years, starting with the 2000 election. This is one year, however, when I have to admit that Tip O’Neil’s declaration that “all politics is local” seems irrelevant. The issues at stake in the national election, not only for President but also for Congress, overwhelm local concerns. Nonetheless, I would still hold that the attitudes of voters take shape locally, given that anti- and pro- Trump votes can be arrayed over a geographic spectrum from the centers of cities to rural communities, whereby the farther you live from an urban center the more likely you are to support Trump.

The closer people live to each other, the more they must acknowledge the role of government. People who live in rural areas and in small towns, even though their lives and livelihoods are just as or even more dependent on government than those of people who live in cities, are not reminded everyday of that dependence. They believe passionately that they are independent, “free” of the need for government. Yet they get back more money from Washington than they send there, and these days Republican members of Congress from rural districts are scrambling to save the Post Office.

The cities have also been, since the end of the 19th century, where most immigrants have arrived and settled, and where Blacks from the South settled during the “Great Migration.” The nativist sentiments that Trump exploits are going to be stronger where there are more “natives” (paradoxically where there are fewer immigrants to bother them) even if those natives are often themselves descendants of the despised immigrants of a century ago. While there’s no doubt that changing demographics have caused tensions in cities over the years, ultimately city dwellers realize that they “have to get along,” to paraphrase the immortal words of Rodney King, and Trump’s appeals to xenophobia have been less successful among whites who live in cities and suburbs, and they have little appeal to the immigrants themselves, let alone to African-Americans.

So, I don’t know if all politics is local, but a lot of it is.

We saw that in the closing days of the recently-concluded session of the California legislature, where a host of housing bills died. I’m not endorsing every provision of every housing bill that failed, but in the face of a statewide housing crisis, a crisis that Governor Newsom promised to solve, it’s incredible that the legislature has let another year pass without taking significant action to make it easier to plan, finance, and build housing.

The obstacles to housing legislation are essentially local, but not necessarily in ways that are obvious.

The obvious local obstacle to housing legislation is that statewide laws limit the cherished powers of local governments over land use. Local governments, which have responded over the decades to constituents who oppose building apartments by zoning apartments out, claim, loudly but unconvincingly, that Sacramento does not need to limit their powers over land use to get more housing built. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that local government opposition has been the crucial factor preventing state legislation. By now a majority of legislators, and the governor, are ready to buck the interests of local governments and pass major housing legislation. The question is why they haven’t done so.

In-fill housing under construction in Santa Monica last year.

I would argue that the reason for the deadlock is that the elements of the Democratic coalition in Sacramento cannot agree on legislation that balances the interests of those elements. There is agreement if not consensus that the solution to the housing crisis, which has resulted in high housing costs for California’s middle and working classes and the shame of rampant homelessness, is to build more multi-unit buildings, in all forms from duplexes to apartment towers (as and where appropriate), as urban in-fill rather than more sprawl. There’s also broad agreement that the state needs housing for all income levels, notwithstanding that some “housers” from the “YIMBY” side push relaxed zoning requirements as a cure-all solution, and some housers from the anti-gentrification side push only for more affordable housing.

What happens in Sacramento, though, is that elements of the Democratic coalition resist housing legislation that affects the concerns of their constituents. These concerns aren’t ideological or national, even though they reflect issues that are general; they are what local politics is all about.

For instance, the building trades unions want to make sure that the housing that is enabled by statewide legislation does not undercut the wage rates of their members or their jobs. They argue that the good wages they have negotiated are what allow workers to afford housing, and they have a point. Given the real cost of building housing (independent of wage rates), a good case can be made that it’s not that housing costs are too high, but that wages are too low. (A result of the Republican assault on labor unions; see above.)

This legitimate advocacy for their members, however, frustrates proponents of affordable housing, including unions that represent relatively low-wage service workers as well as builders of housing for the homeless, who are astounded by the high cost of building affordable housing.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement, another element of the Democratic coalition, is torn. On one hand, environmentalists don’t want to see more sprawl, and they support in-fill development which reduces greenhouse gas production, but on the other hand, environmentalists are concerned that many housing bills would limit review under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s signature environmental law, and they worry about CEQA being killed by a thousand small cuts.

Then there are complex issues about where to build housing so as not to displace currently housed working people. Legislators from working class areas want more housing options for their constituents, but they don’t want to see development pressures that ratchet up the cost of existing housing by suddenly increasing the value of land. While on an economic theory level well-intentioned people may agree that too much land in California cities is zoned for single-family houses, it’s more difficult on a practical level to agree on exactly where and how single-family zoning should be modified.

I could go on; I haven’t even mentioned conflicts over financing. The point I want to make is that these conflicts are too complex to resolve in the pressure of a legislative session, especially in the context of all the other crises we are experiencing today. What needs to happen is someone—perhaps the governor, or if not him, a consortium of housers—needs to canvass or convene all the elements of the Democratic coalition and forge an approach to housing legislation that balances their competing interests.

Thanks for reading.

Flooding the zone of public opinion: two weeks that shook the world

The demonstrations responding to the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd have galvanized the world. For the first time since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, major protests against racism have erupted simultaneously across the nation.

Different from the civil disturbances in 1968, this time the protests have themselves been by and large peaceful (and increasingly so). They also have included unprecedented numbers of protesters who are not African-Americans.

These protests are a big deal, and there is great hope that we are at a turning point in American history. Great hope not only that whites are finally acknowledging the pervasiveness of racism and the legacy of racism in America, but also that they want to do something about it, finally recognizing that we are all held back (although whites not as much as black and brown people!) by systemic prejudice, discrimination and denial of rights.

You see this in the white parents taking their children to demonstrations so that they can tell their grandchildren that they participated in history.

Change is in the air.

I am going to argue here that historians will credit this great moment of potential to the power of nonviolent protest: to the power of civil disobedience and passive resistance to fight oppression by altering public opinion. (I have no intention of telling anyone how to protest. I merely want to state my empirical analysis of what has happened the past two weeks.)

In 1992, after the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, the unleashed rage of the African-American community was destroying the neighborhoods of that community. The actor Edward James Olmos, in an awe-inspiring act of non-violence, stopped the destruction by showing up with a broom.

Last Monday, in Santa Monica, Long Beach, and other places around the country that had been hit by looting over the weekend, local people showed up with their brooms and dustpans to clean up. There was no blame cast. The implicit message was that this was a community problem, and the community would fix it. Soon the looting, all over America, stopped. At the same time, the protests expanded and became more peaceful, bringing in more participants and flooding the zone of public opinion.

But it wasn’t only the actions of ordinary people that turned the protests into massive nonviolent demonstrations. There was one not-ordinary person who had a major impact: Donald Trump.

Yes, it was the response of the protesters and the public to Trump’s militarization of the police response to the protests in Washington, D.C., Trump’s violent clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, and Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, that made it clear to all that the logic of Gandhi, King, and Mandela, was the most effective strategy to use not only to achieve justice, but also to oppose a tyrant.

It was as if hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of protesters had instantly taken the training John Lewis and others went through before integrating lunch counters or becoming Freedom Riders. The secret of passive resistance is that to make public opinion favor those who are denied justice, one needs to let the world see where violence comes from. While the video of George Floyd’s murder was Exhibit A for that, the passive resistance of tens of thousands simply marching for justice and being met by disproportionate force, as epitomized by Trump’s clearing Lafayette Square, has galvanized public opinion in favor of justice.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “[P]ublic sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

As usual, Santa Monica was a microcosm of national events. There have been many protests here, and downtown Santa Monica was hard hit by looting that was contemporaneous with protests on Sunday, May 31.

Questions about the police response in Santa Monica focus on what happened then. The police concentrated their forces near the Pier, in a standoff with protesters the police considered a threat to property and public safety. The police did not deploy officers to stop looting on and east of Fourth Street. Local television stations were broadcasting all this, from both locations, live.

The actions of the Santa Monica police have been challenged from two directions, which are not mutually exclusive. Protesters accuse the police of overreacting to the situation near the Pier instead of deescalating it. The police used tear gas and “less than lethal” weapons against protesters. The other challenge has come from business owners and residents who are bewildered that the police didn’t have any presence on Fourth Street to stop the looting that was taking place in broad daylight. For their part, the police say they did the best they could, given the circumstances and the resources they had. They point out that no one was injured in Santa Monica.

At the moment I’m not interested in second-guessing given that the information I have is necessarily incomplete. Nor do I expect that in the “fog of civil unrest” police and other authorities can be expected to make perfect decisions. But what happened that Sunday must be investigated. Not necessarily to cast blame, but certainly to learn.

I believe it’s obvious, however, that Santa Monica, like many cities, made a big mistake when it implemented drastic curfews (starting at 4:00 p.m. that Sunday in Santa Monica and then almost around the clock for Monday and Tuesday, June 1 and 2). These curfews criminalized constitutionally-protected rights of speech and assembly and operated as unconstitutional “prior restraints” on First Amendment rights.

While the intent behind curfews is to reduce lawlessness and facilitate law enforcement, these blanket curfews paradoxically made policing more difficult. We have seen this all around the country. Police became obsessed with curfew-violators, or even potential violators, who were otherwise peaceful. Enforcement of curfews caused and incited more violence, typically originating from the police themselves.

Fortunately, in Santa Monica and around the country, authorities finally realized that blanket curfews, along with overly-armed and militarized police are counter-productive, and have been lifting the curfews, returning police to their regular equipment. The public has responded with a virtuous circle of expansion of the protests, as more and more people, realizing that the demonstrations are safe, join to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

No justice, no peace. No peace, no justice.

Thanks for reading and take care.

Aligning Santa Monica’s assets to its mission

By Frank Gruber and Juan Matute

We wrote in our last piece that although the City of Santa Monica is experiencing an unprecedented financial crisis during which revenues are predicted to miss targets by $200 million over the next two years, the City has substantial assets to use to cushion the impact of the crisis. In this post, we want to dive deeper into those assets and what might be done with them, but we also want to start with some words of caution.

For one thing, the data set forth in the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), which we cited in our post, are as of June 30, 2019. While the CAFR shows that the City had over $700 million in cash and investments, of which the report identified $171 million as unrestricted, one friend pointed out to us that these numbers did not reflect the $42 million settlement of the Eric Uller abuse litigation; presumably the ultimate source of that payment was the City’s accumulated assets. But this only highlights the need for the City Council to be aware of just what the City’s resources are before the council makes decisions about the budget.

In our post we said that the City needed to prudently tap its assets to “determine how much [could] be tapped over three or four years” to maintain necessary services. We want to say that we don’t know if the crisis will be over in four years. As Frank wrote a few weeks ago, we could easily be at a major historical inflection point, the end of the post-War era of worldwide economic expansion. Neither one of us is an economist (not that economists are particularly good at predicting), but it is plain that 2020 is just as likely to be another 1930 as it is to be another 2008. If not more likely.

Even if we are facing another Depression, it makes sense to use the City’s assets to cushion the impact over a finite term (say, three to five years), because that would give the council and staff enough time to restructure the City’s finances to accommodate a changed world. Further, to the extent the City can dispose of non-financial assets, those assets are likely to lose value over time if the economy tanks.

A changed world, with dramatically less travel, with less disposable income available for entertainment, with less demand for office space, would be brutal for Santa Monica. A full one-third of the City’s revenues come from hotel taxes, business taxes, and sales taxes; these are to a great extent generated by non-residents. The City’s assets will not save Santa Monica from having to reconsider its levels of expenditures and what it spends money on. The assets should, however, allow Santa Monica to make thoughtful, not-panic-induced choices.

Many of those choices, however, must be made in the next few weeks, at least those that affect the next fiscal year. The City Charter requires the City Manager to submit a draft budget to the City Council at least 35 days before the start of the fiscal year beginning July 1st (May 27). According to the staff report for the May 26 City Council meeting (two days from now), the proposed budget will be submitted as an information item at the meeting. The City Council will have hearings in June and it must approve a balanced budget by June 30. After the initial budget is passed future adjustments would require a supermajority of five votes. It is critical that the council, before voting on the budget, be aware of the assets that are available to soften the impact of the impending deficits.

So what are those assets?

As we discussed in our first piece, the City’s net worth on paper is $1.6 billion. Its assets include $437 million in federal securities, $178 million in corporate bonds, and $25 million in municipal bonds. A portion of these relatively liquid assets is needed to cover current liabilities, which totaled $108 million at the end of fiscal year 2019. But before approving the 2021 budget, the City Council needs to know to what extent these liquid assets can be drawn upon to fund current expenditures.

Looking ahead longer term, into a potential Depression, the City must evaluate what fixed assets it can dispose of to soften the transition to a budget structured for a new reality. In certain circumstances, the two goals can be joined. Restructuring government is not only a matter of cutting jobs; it should also involve a discussion about the purpose and goals of local government.

When it comes to the City’s real estate, the CAFR substantially understates the City’s position. As we discussed in the previous post, accounting rules require deduction of depreciation, which has no connection to market value. Even more significant, accounting rules require the City to list landholdings at what the City paid for the land. For instance, all the land at Santa Monica Airport is valued at eight dollars (yes, about two cappuccinos) in the CAFR. (Not that selling any of the Airport would help the City’s budget, since per the FAA the proceeds would have to be deposited in the Airport fund.)

How accounting standards can differ from reality: the land at SMO valued at $8.

While much of the City’s real property is dedicated to municipal purposes, and can’t be sold, the City needs to consider what services and “enterprises” are, or should be, part of the City’s mission.

For instance, in the 1950s “Republican-Socialists” who ran Santa Monica believed it was the City’s mission to subsidize local businesses by building a Civic Auditorium. Unfortunately, once built the Civic became a large drain on City revenues. The fiscal bleeding only stopped a few years ago when the City closed the Civic to the public on the grounds that it was seismically unsafe. At that time the City formed a task force (one of us, Frank, was on it) to figure out how to save the Civic as part of a multi-use development. But any realistic hope of such a fate for the Civic evaporated when the City Council approved a walled-in soccer field and a water runoff retention facility in the Civic’s parking lot.

Meanwhile, the staff report for Tuesday night’s City Council meeting calls for another $228,000 to be spent to maintain the Civic. Is owning a Civic Auditorium integral to the City’s mission in 2020? We don’t think so. We’d rather see $228,000 used for more productive purposes.

At $200 per square foot, a conservative valuation in Santa Monica, the four acres containing the Civic would be worth $35 million. Perhaps it is time to sell the property?

The City also owns many parking structures and parking lots. Municipal parking structures are assets of declining value in an era of shared ride apps and scooters and a future of automated vehicles. Given that City policy now is to discourage driving to fight Climate Change, would the City today choose to enter the parking business? The City should look into selling one or more parking structures downtown, including those at Santa Monica Place. The owners of the mall might be willing to pay a premium given that in the long run redevelopment potential for these sites is among the greatest in the city as they are in the Transit Adjacent Zone.

The City should also consider whether it should be in the development business. We’re thinking in particular of the fiasco at 4th and Arizona. It’s proven impossible for the City to make decisions when it is both the landowner and the regulator. It is time to sell that property. It would be valuable. A city-owned, 25-space surface parking lot in downtown Santa Monica sold for $6.2 million in 2018. Based on that, the much larger property at 4th and Arizona could be worth at least $100 million at its current zoning, and more if permitted to develop in accordance with the large site parameters set in the Downtown Community Plan.

The City also owns properties that it leases to commercial tenants who pay ground rent, sometimes at below market rents. Some of the city’s properties aren’t even in the City of Santa Monica. The City should determine whether the market values of these properties are greater than the present value of the future rents: it may be advantageous to sell. The City would receive a one-time infusion of cash by selling any of these holdings, either to investors or to the long-term land lease holders, which include the Windward School in Mar Vista, the Viceroy Hotel, and Kite Pharmaceuticals. Other properties the City owns are not developed, such as a parking lot near the City’s water treatment plant in West L.A. that is conservatively worth $15 million.

Even if the market for commercial real estate drops 20% from its recent peak, the City should be able to generate at least $80 million by selling just a portion of these properties, which generate about $4 million a year in land lease payments. We don’t know if a one-time infusion of cash in exchange for a perpetual reduction in lease revenues is prudent, but now is the time to explore such trade-offs.

Santa Monica can hope that future revenues exceed current projections. It can hope that a higher power (the federal government) grants it a proportional share of a proposed federal stimulus ($142 million). But if it needs cash, the City has substantial assets from which to draw. Santa Monica’s motto is “a fortunate people in a fortunate place”. We are indeed fortunate that the City has accumulated substantial wealth.

Thanks for reading.

A Local New Deal for Santa Monica

By Frank Gruber & Juan Matute

The City of Santa Monica is experiencing a financial crisis unprecedented in living memory. If left as is, planned expenditures are likely to exceed revenues by $200 million over the next two years. To close the gap between now and the end of the fiscal year (June 30), the City has already committed to spending its operating reserves and the City Council has approved hundreds of layoffs. 

But Santa Monica is not broke. It has cash, securities, and other assets worth billions of dollars. The City has the second-best ratio of assets to debt of its peer cities in Los Angeles County (justifying its triple-A bond rating). Many of these assets are, of course, essential for the City’s purposes—think City Hall, or parks, or the City Yards—and can neither be disposed of nor borrowed against. The City has, however, about three quarters of a billion dollars in relatively liquid assets, mostly government bonds. (The details on the City’s assets are set forth in the City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for the year ending June 30, 2019, which was delivered to the City Council last December 16 and which is available on the City’s website. For ready reference, the summary of all accounts, the “Statement of Net Position,” is reproduced below.)

The City amassed its liquid assets over the past two decades of (nearly continuous) prosperity, by nearly always spending less each year than it took in as revenues. These assets are above and beyond the City’s explicitly denominated operating reserves (which are tiny in comparison). The City is wealthy.

One should ask: for what purposes does a City amass wealth? We can think of only two: for either (i), investing in capital improvements, something not relevant to this discussion, or (ii) the proverbial rainy day. With respect to the proverbial rainy day, what we are experiencing now, with Covid-19, is a Biblical deluge. There is no reason for the City not to tap these assets, prudently, to get the City through the coronavirus crisis.

Although the current crisis is extreme and dramatic, it’s not the first time the City has faced economic difficulties. When Douglas Aircraft left Santa Monica in the late ’60s, Santa Monica entered two decades of economic decline. Businesses, visitors, and residents were no longer attracted to Santa Monica as the public realm was increasingly blighted and unsafe. The City’s decline seemed to be epitomized when our famous Pier was badly damaged by storms in the winter of 1982-83. 

Yet the City picked itself up. Enlightened leadership and an engaged community not only invested to rebuild the Pier, but the City turned the dead zone of the old Third Street Mall into the bustling Third Street Promenade. The Northridge Earthquake clobbered downtown Santa Monica in 1994, but the City responded proactively and emerged stronger not only economically, but also socially, as our city supported sustainability, equity, education, housing, and social services at higher levels than did other California cities.

Now the public health and economic crises threaten our local economy. City Council has voted to reduce the size of local government by about 25 percent, a major disinvestment in services that will lead to a decline in what makes Santa Monica a good place to live, work and visit. In our opinion, although budget cutting is needed, the drastic cuts the council approved threaten to turn Santa Monica into a place that would not be in a position for an economic recovery when the pandemic ends—whenever that will be. 

The City needs a local bailout. The City cannot avoid the downward spiral of disinvestment without expenses exceeding the City’s lowered revenue projections over the next two (and we expect three or four) years. The City will ruin itself if it reduces expenditures to the dramatically diminished level of revenues. Not only because of the degradation of services, but also because of the knowledge and expertise that will be lost when experienced employees are let go.

Of course, municipalities, unlike the federal government, cannot run deficits. But they can sell or otherwise turn to account the assets they own. Santa Monica needs to analyze its portfolio of assets and determine how much can be tapped over three or four years to maintain as much in the way of necessary services as possible. 

No, this doesn’t mean we sell the Pier. The assets that the City could sell are government bonds it is holding or various real properties the City owns, some not even in Santa Monica, which serve no municipal purpose. This will require a close look at the City’s future obligations, both fixed and contingent. In our opinion the CAFR makes it clear that the City’s liquid assets far exceed its liabilities, especially considering the timing of when those liabilities are due.

To begin that analysis, we suggest that the City’s own analysis is far too conservative about what assets are available. Looking at the Statement of Net Position (copied below), you’ll see that while by the City’s accounting its net assets total $1.602 billion, of which $703 million is in the form of cash and investments (i.e., liquid, not operational assets), only $171.9 million is available, without restrictions, to be spent. (How the City reaches the $171.9 million is set forth on page xxii of the CAFR.) While $171.9 million is, itself, a lot of money, and spread out over three or four years could save many City services, it is an understatement of the City’s available funds. 

It’s an understatement because to get to that number the City not only deducts from its assets $850 million of depreciation on fixed assets (an accounting requirement that does not reflect the value of the property being depreciated), but also deducts long-term liabilities that are never meant to be paid dollar-for-dollar from the City’s accumulated assets, but rather paid over time.

The biggest number in that regard is the often discussed $447.8 million net liability for pensions. This is a big number, but the pension obligation is payable over time to CalPERS according to an actuarially determined schedule, not all at once. Indeed, the City has been reducing its long-term pension liability by pre-paying the debt voluntarily from the City’s annual surplus cash. In accordance with the City’s current plan to deal with the crisis, those payments are being suspended for two years, but there’s nothing that requires the City to hold hundreds of millions of dollars of assets hostage because of its future obligations to CalPERS.

In upcoming articles, we will discuss other possibilities involving how the City can monetize assets that are not used for municipal purposes and possibly borrow against assets and receive support from the Federal Reserve to do so.

The Pier’s bridge and famous sign were built in 1938 by the federal Works Project Administration, a program of the New Deal. In 2020 Santa Monica can tap into its long-term assets to access the revenues necessary to avoid the vicious cycle of disinvestment and smooth the fiscal curve. Santa Monica can fund its own New Deal to help Santa Monica during a deep recession.

Thanks for reading.

Here is the City’s Statement of Net Position, as of June 30, 2019:

Apocalypse Now?

The 19th century saw a great expansion of global connectivity and vast increases in productivity. The century didn’t begin in 1800, but at Waterloo in 1815; and it ended in 1914, in Sarajevo. What then followed were three catastrophic decades of destruction, a reckoning for contradictions embedded in 19th century progress. In 1945 a new period of expanded global connectivity and increased productivity began: the “post-War era.”

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that the post-War era ended in Wuhan late in 2019.

How does it feel, living during a historical moment? The Covid-19 pandemic looks to be the defining moment of the first half of the 21st century. Future historians will study us. How will we, the people of the world, deal with the contradictions embedded in post-War progress?

My son is getting a Ph.D. in ancient history, focusing on the last years of what’s called “Late Antiquity,” meaning when the Roman world fell apart. He has professor who makes the point that around the fifth century people in the western Mediterranean and western Europe grew up in a world that had not changed from a material perspective for a thousand years, but their grandchildren lived in a completely changed world. And not a better one.

Apocalypse is not inevitable. We are not helpless. But history teaches that when unprecedented environmental, economic or social stress coincides with a lack of world order and leadership, calamity happens. Bad luck can be a factor, too. What were the odds that the pandemic that scientists (and popular culture) predicted, would arrive when America had its first president in nearly a century who didn’t care about the rest of the world?

Many civilizations have fallen since Sumerians and Egyptians and other ancient literate peoples began recording history, but if it happens to us, we’ll be the first to have been aware it was happening and why. (This goes for global warming, too.) We have the knowledge, and the resources, to confront epidemiological and environmental crises, but we will we have the will and wisdom?

Will and wisdom. That brings us to the situation in Santa Monica. Our little city, because so much of its economy and wealth is based on globalization (tourism, entertainment, technology), has abruptly felt the impact of the pandemic. When tourism collapsed about two months ago, the city’s tax revenues, of which about 25 percent come from visitors, collapsed.

Social distancing customers outside Bob’s Market this week.

The first impact, once the scope of the disaster became evident, was that City Manager Rick Cole departed. I don’t know whether Cole voluntarily quit or was fired. His departure did remind me, however, that when he took the job five years ago, leaving a Deputy Mayor position in the City of L.A., Cole said he wanted to work in a city where there was enough money to pay for the kind of programs he thought a city government should deliver. Speaking of Santa Monica, he said at the time, “it has the resources to do some incredible things.”

Incredible things. Many Santa Monicans felt the same way. Tuesday evening, I listened to much of the nearly eight-hour City Council meeting, the one where the council voted to cut nearly 500 jobs (about 20 percent of the City’s total) (and including non-permanent positions). Many residents spoke. Most of them politely pleaded to the council not to cut the City programs that they believed were most important.

Like everyone else, I could rank City programs on a scale from essential to “what were they thinking, and why the hell are they paying so much for it?” I won’t go there. Let’s face it, we were all willing to drink from, or have the thirsts of our favorite programs quenched at, the public trough. Nor was it irrational to expect that the water for the trough would continue to flow from tourism. Hotels and restaurants, and stores where tourists shopped, were not, after all, like factories that could be moved to China or Mexico.

The City should have screened Contagion or Outbreak on the Pier every summer.

What I did not hear Tuesday night was anyone (although I’ll admit I didn’t hear everyone who spoke) giving any credit to the tourism industry or the people who work in it for generating the money that once filled that trough. Over the years I’ve heard many disgruntled residents appear at council and commission meetings to complain about tourists. Many of these residents would complain that UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel workers, had too much influence over City policies. Some of those same residents appeared Tuesday night to plead on behalf of the programs they like.

How about a word of appreciation for those workers? They are now unemployed, and not likely to go back to work for a while. They never made much money, and few could afford to live in Santa Monica, yet it was their labor that underpinned extensive services that benefited the residents of Santa Monica and the city employees who provided the services.

And I know this will be hard for some, but how about a little sympathy for the owners of and investors in the hotels, too? Let’s recall now the many times some council members said that the economy of Santa Monica would always be booming and profitable for (always greedy) investors.

But I don’t want to be tough on residents. Santa Monica voters have rarely turned down a new tax or bond issue. There have been some scrooges (I used to call them right-wing nihilists), but, like Rick Cole, Santa Monica residents for the most part have appreciated a city with the resources to do incredible things, and they have been willing to tax themselves. What many perhaps didn’t realize until now was how much of those resources came not from them, but from somewhere else in the world.

Thanks for reading.

Main Street during the pandemic

During the coronavirus quarantine, I’m lucky for many reasons, including that I can take walks from my house to the beach or up and down Main Street in my Ocean Park neighborhood. On Friday and Saturday, March 27-28, I used my iPhone to take photos of all the signs announcing business closings or adjusted services. Each photo represents lost jobs and livelihoods; lost community. Yet each photo also shows a bit of resilience. You can view the photos at this Flickr album.

Living in interesting times

Let’s start with good news. Even assuming that the numbers coming out of China, and specifically from Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, reflect incomplete data because of the impossibility of universal testing, it is clear that “locking down” the populace to fight coronavirus and COVID-19 works even if these public health actions have been delayed by initial blindness on the part of authorities.

Hubei has about 60 million people – about 50% more than California. The initial spread of the virus was rapid. As with our federal government in Washington, at first the reaction from Beijing was to minimize the dangers, but as reality kicked in, ultimately, after wasting weeks, measures were implemented in late January to shelter in place.

The impact came rapidly. First the rate of infection and then deaths peaked in Hubei by the middle of February. Meanwhile China implemented quarantine policies over nearly the entire country. Last Thursday the government claimed that there were no new cases in China that originated in China.

There are still fears that the rest of China outside of Hubei will suffer a wave of the virus much like the rest of the world. The number of reported cases in China, about 80,000, is, however, many orders of magnitude fewer than the 25 million cases Gov. Gavin Newsom has predicted could occur in California alone if people do not quarantine and isolate. While the number of reported cases depends on the vagaries of testing, even if there were ten times as many cases in China as have been reported, the numbers are dramatically different from what models show would have been the case without quarantining.

Prompt action in countries and places like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan have greatly slowed even the initial spread of the virus, but there are even more countries, including the U.S., where authorities minimized the risks, ignored scientific advice, and wasted valuable time. However, the experience in China hopefully shows that it’s never too late to take action.

Italy is another country where the government’s early messages were mixed. The lack of quick action led to rapid spreading of the virus starting in mid-February. The government did not implement a nationwide lockdown until March 9, about two weeks ago. Since then, infections and deaths are still rising. Let’s hope, however, that we will see, in the next week or so, that those measures lead to positive results as they did in Hubei.

Bringing the issue home, during the week of March 9 individual Californians began to self-isolate in large numbers and institutions began shutting down all public gatherings. The first government-mandated lockdowns, in seven Bay Area counties, did not begin, however, until last Tuesday, March 17. On Thursday Gov. Newsom, for the whole state, and L.A. County on its own, issued orders to stay home. With little direction from Washington, localities around the U.S. are only haphazardly realizing that they need to lock down. At this time fewer than 25% of Americans have been ordered to quarantine.

That’s going to have to change. As these measures come online, one hopes that as in Hubei they can tame the beast in three weeks or so. Because, however, these stay at home orders are coming late, typically right as the incidence of infection is exploding, those three weeks (the next three weeks here in California) will be horrible, with, as happened in Italy, an overwhelmed local healthcare system.

During these miserable weeks expect despair and cynicism from some, but expect life-affirming solidarity from most. If we emerge as Hubei has emerged, with a fraction of the illnesses and deaths that were predicted, then you can expect to hear a chorus of naysayers saying, “see, it wasn’t so bad; it was all overblown.” That is, ironically, the sad fate of all great public health victories. Once the battle is won, ignoramuses will say there was no battle to fight. (Typically, they are the same ignoramuses who said before the battle that there was nothing to worry about, that everything was “perfect.”)

If the Hubei model is real, and if it is implemented elsewhere, the containment of COVID-19 won’t be a victory of medicine over disease; rather, it will be another great victory for public health. No miracle cures will stop COVID-19; why anyone, let alone President Trump, believes there will be a cure for COVID-19 when there aren’t cures for the flu, the common cold, or other viral diseases, is beyond me. Doctors and nurses and their colleagues will do their courageous best to prolong the lives of victims long enough for their immune systems to defeat the virus, but what will contain and control the disease are tried and true public health measures of sanitation and quarantine, and ultimately, a vaccine.

The development and expansion of public health has been one of the great achievements of the past 200 years. Public health has been so successful and is so ingrained in our way of thinking, that people take clean water, sanitation, trash collection, vector control, etc., for granted. Nonetheless, the public by and large understands and cooperates with the concept that for their own good and the good of the public they must cooperate with public health orders. (I would include vaccinations in the list of public health achievements that we take for granted, but, unfortunately, we no longer can take vaccinations for granted, since a large segment of our population believe they can live without them.)

(By the way, let me use this opportunity to plug a book written by a Santa Monican. Longtime local Michael McGuire is one of the world’s experts on water. A few years ago, he wrote a wonderful book, The Chlorine Revolution: The History of Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, that recounts the history of treatment of water with chlorine. Chlorination is widely acknowledged to have save more lives than any other single health practice. The book is a good read for the quarantine.)

There is a proverbial curse (possibly, but not likely, Chinese) that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” All I can say is, if you’re living in interesting times, better for you if you’re doing so as part of a community that believes in public health.

Thanks for reading.

Memo to City Council: It’s a start

After years of creating procedural and other obstacles to the building of much-needed new housing, the City of Santa Monica is poised to do something significant to encourage housing development. Tuesday evening, if the City Council follows the recommendations of staff and a vote by the Planning Commission, the council will vote to streamline the approval process for all 100% affordable housing and most market-rate multi-unit housing developments.

If passed, the new rules will require only administrative approval for (i) 100% affordable projects of all sizes (under current rules, 100% affordable projects of more than 50 units outside of the downtown require Planning Commission review), and (ii) market-rate projects for which for all practical purposes the City’s review was already limited by state law (the “Housing Accountability Act”), but for which the City nevertheless required a Planning Commission hearing. Administrative review will not only shorten the duration of review by the City, but also add to the certainty of approval. This will facilitate financing, particularly for affordable projects that rely on tax-credits.

The hope is that by eliminating discretionary review, the City will rekindle interest from developers in what are called, under the City’s general plan, “Tier 2” projects. These are the mid-density, often mixed-use, projects that have been the mainstay of housing development in the city, to the extent there has been housing development, for about 30 years, for both affordable and market-rate developments. The City said it expected Tier 2 projects would be built under the supposedly “pro-housing” planning documents the City developed, after painfully slow processes, over the past 16 years, but few have been built under the new rules.

Perversely, the City’s housing laws make it more difficult to build Tier 2 projects, with more housing, than Tier 1 projects, which generate little housing and few benefits. Tier 1 projects already get administrative review. (As for Tier 3 projects, with even more housing and benefits, these are impossible. They are in the general plan only as window-dressing.) The City loaded Tier 2 projects with additional costs, including the state’s highest requirements for including affordable units, and required discretionary approvals. As a result, the few developers willing to work under the City’s new rules have primarily built smaller, Tier 1, projects that deliver much less housing, including drastically fewer affordable units.

If the council does the right thing Tuesday night, the discretionary review will be gone for most Tier 2 projects, but the restrictive development standards and added-on costs will remain. Nonetheless, the recommendation from staff to remove discretionary review comes in the context that the City expects its annual allocation under the “Regional Housing Needs Assessment” (RHNA) to be greatly increased to about 1,100 units for 2021 to 2029 period. Satisfying RHNA will require the City to demonstrate land availability and zoning capacity to achieve the RHNA numbers. Eliminating discretionary review does nothing for RHNA.

Satisfying RHNA will require a rethinking of the City’s zoning. The City will need to extend to commercial districts throughout the city the kind of zoning first adopted downtown in the 1990s that encouraged the building of housing instead of commercial development. The most important factor was allowing twice the amount of residential development as commercial. Of course, as those who followed the fiasco of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), know, the DCP ruined the zoning that had over 20 years turned much of downtown into a vibrant neighborhood. One hopes that in the context of responding to RHNA, the City will fix the DCP, too. By concentrating housing development in commercial zones, the City can limit displacement of current tenants.

Tuesday night expect to hear pseudo-housers argue that the City should do nothing to encourage market-rate development, and only provide incentives for 100% affordable projects. In their view, it’s evil to make money from building housing, and only “greedy developers” do so (notwithstanding that everyone in Santa Monica lives in a development that was built by, or land that was subdivided by, a developer). To pseudo-housers, market-rate (or what they like to call “luxury”) development only raises rents for everyone else. As if they want to bring back redlining, they don’t like investment in cities. (I discussed pseudo-housers in more detail back in November.)

I won’t again discuss the silliness of these arguments, but it is worth taking a moment to examine the economics of housing development to try to understand why it is so hard in California to build housing for working-class and even middle-class households.

We talk about a “housing affordability” crisis but when we look at the numbers, we realize that it’s not that rents are too high, but that incomes are too low to pay for the real cost of building housing. It now costs, in southern California, on the order of $500 per square foot to build apartments. (For this analysis I’ll ignore whether this includes the cost of land.) That means that assuming a developer can find land and get zoning approval, an 800-square foot, two-bedroom apartment, our era’s equivalent to a 1950s or ’60s tract house, costs $400,000 to build. To cover amortization of costs, financing, operating costs, and to make some profit, the developer has to recoup at least 10% annually — $40,000 per year, meaning a monthly rent of about $3300, or about $4 per square foot. To afford $40,000 a year in rent, a household needs an income of at least $100,000, far beyond the average household income in L.A. of about $60,000.

These costs show why it is useless to criticize developers for building apartments that only “rich people” can afford. If there weren’t at least some households making $100,000 per year, there wouldn’t be a market for even 800-square foot new apartments, let alone the larger units (including condos) that young families aspire to. To the extent new housing isn’t built for people with above-average incomes, those people will move into the housing of lower-income workers—displacement. Keep on doing that, and what do you know, but 50,000 people in L.A. County don’t have homes at all.  

Fifty years ago, workers made “middle-class” wages working union manufacturing jobs. Fifty years of Republican attacks on unions and the resulting shift of wealth from workers to capital, have created the fiction that it’s housing that has become too expensive, while it’s wages that have fallen too low to justify the development of market-rate housing for workers. Government is called upon to provide or subsidize affordable housing for workers who should be able to afford market-rate housing, and would be able to do so, if they received a reasonable share of the benefits of an expanded economy. And then liberals are criticized for giving away “free stuff.”

Rather than make it more difficult to invest money in housing, the way to solve the housing affordability crisis is to raise incomes starting at the lowest levels of wages.

Thanks for reading.

New realities and housing policy in Santa Monica

Wednesday night there will be a joint meeting of the Planning and Housing Commissions to discuss the future of Santa Monica’s housing policies. (Don’t ask me why there is a joint meeting. The commissions have a total of 13 members, all of whom should have thoughts about those policies. Anyway – expect heat, hope for light.)

Events are moving fast when it comes to housing policy. Decades of chickens, in the form of resistance to building needed housing in coastal California, including in Santa Monica, have come home to roost. A devastating shortage of housing has jacked up rents (meanwhile making homeowners rich) and created unprecedented levels of economically-caused homelessness. Finally the State of California and regional authorities are doing something about it.

I highly recommend reading the staff report for Wednesday night’s meeting. The report does primarily two things: (i) it reviews state and regional actions since 2017 designed to stop local governments from preventing housing from being built and to require them to plan for, allow, and facilitate more housing, and (ii) it presents data from the consultants hired by Santa Monica showing that extending affordable housing inclusion requirements mandated two years ago on development in downtown Santa Monica to the rest of the city would make housing development outside of downtown infeasible (as it has largely become in downtown).

As for the new limitations on local government’s control over land use, California has enacted various laws since 2017, described in the staff report, encouraging and expediting housing development. When it comes to dramatic change, however, nothing beats what happened November 7 at the regional level. Responding to dramatic action from the governor to require plans for more housing development, and concerted action by housing activists, our regional planning authority, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), made the overdue acknowledgement that the region needs a large number of new housing units, 1.3 million, and that the majority of those units need to be built, because of existing need, near concentrations of jobs and transit along the coast.

The new SCAG housing numbers, assuming they are approved by the California Department and Housing and Community Development (HCD) and survive the inevitable litigation from coastal cities, will require drastic revision of housing policies in Santa Monica if the City is going to avoid fines and other penalties. The new requirement for Santa Monica will be a net increase of about 9,000 units over eight years. To give you an idea of how dramatic this change is, over the past 24 years, the average number of new units built in Santa Monica was 217. (For more data about housing production in Santa Monica, see this post of mine from last spring.)

Still, lest anyone panic (I’m sure people are), 1,000 units per year would be only about a 2 percent annual increase in the number housing units in Santa Monica, and 9,000 units would be a less than 20 percent increase over about a decade. But the increase is overdue; from 1980 to 2018 the total number of units in Santa Monica increased only about 14 percent (from 46,393 to 52,871).  An increase to 60,000 units is nothing a city with Santa Monica’s resources can’t handle. (I won’t go into it now, because I’ve written so often about the real impacts of population growth in Santa Monica (as opposed to the mythical), but these new residents will not contribute to the traffic that results from commuters coming to Santa Monica and the Westside in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. In fact, to the extent the new residents have jobs on the Westside, they will reduce those trips.)

The rest of the staff report, including exhibits, is all about a financial analysis the City Council asked for regarding what would happen if the City extended the affordable housing requirements of the 2017 Downtown Community Plan (DCP) to the rest of the city. Why the City would consider extending the requirements is a mystery, since those DCP requirements have resulted in little housing, and virtually no affordable housing, being built downtown. (You can read more about the disaster of the DCP here.)

The reason for the analysis is, however, that there are a lot of “pseudo-housers” active in Santa Monica politics, including a large contingent in Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Yes, it’s ironic that an organization dedicated to the interests of apartment renters consistently supports the traditional antipathy of suburban homeowners against apartments. SMRR has always opposed the building of apartments unless they are deed-restricted affordable, which is another way of saying they don’t want apartments to be built, given that it’s difficult to find funding for subsidized, standalone affordable projects. SMRR is the best friend of apartment owners who want to increase rents when rent-controlled units are vacated, because SMRR fights the building of new units that would compete. The pseudo-housers like nothing more, however, than to enact laws that proclaim their “progressiveness” even while demonstrating their opposition to any change in the perfection they evidently find in Santa Monica. That’s why they are pushing an extension of the DCP requirements.

Genuine needs for genuine, not rhetorical, progress, however, are catching up to the pseudo-housers, not only because of high rents and homelessness, but also because of the broad recognition that to reduce carbon emissions it is going to be necessary to live more densely, closer to jobs and transit.

Regardless why the City decided to study extending the DCP requirements, I’m happy to report that the same consultants who too-optimistically found in 2017 that the DCP requirements would not impede housing development downtown have realistically determined that extending those requirements citywide would make nearly all housing development infeasible, especially when compared to the profits that can be made by commercial development. (I wrote about the financial advantages for commercial development in this post from 2017.)

Getting back to Santa Monica’s pseudo-housers, I can predict how they will respond to the new SCAG housing assessment of 9,000 units. About one-half of these units should, according to SCAG, be affordable to low-income households. This is undoubtedly correct (although I don’t believe SCAG has fully taken into account the impact of building new housing on the preservation of affordability in old housing). What I predict, however, is that Santa Monica’s pseudo-housers will seize on this data point and demand that all housing development in Santa Monica be 50 percent low-income affordable. Of course, this would kill private investment in housing, which is what the pseudo-housers want. (To the extent market-rate and moderate-income housing is not built, old, affordable housing stock will continue to be cannibalized and turned into higher-priced housing, but that has never bothered the pseudo-housers.)

So, with all this, where should the City go with housing policy? To me, the City should first return to prior tried-and-true policies that resulted in housing, including affordable housing, being built in Santa Monica over the past 25 years. Then the City should also build on policies, such as the new state law on additional dwelling units (ADUs), to encourage more housing. These policies would include:

• In all commercial zones, give residential housing a double FAR over commercial. This advantage for residential development resulted in around 2,000 units being built in downtown Santa Monica, and the conversion of commercial zoning to residential development means less traffic. It would also solve the “site” problem, since Santa Monica has lots of underbuilt commercially-zoned land.

• In general, increase the zoning envelope to the maximum allowed in the general plan, but at least by one story in all multi-family and commercial zones.

• Return to the moderate-income policy that existed under Measure R until a few years ago, by which a developer could build a 100 percent moderate income project without other requirements. This policy resulted in hundreds of deed-restricted moderate-income units, many of which are now occupied by Section 8 tenants, being built without a dime of public subsidy. A few years ago the pseudo-housers killed this unsubsidized moderate-income development by adding a low-income requirement.

• For the minimum of 15 percent of total units that need to be (and should be) low-income under Measure R, rely on and fund non-profit developers (such as CCSM and homeless service providers like Step Up or the People Concern) and require a small, perhaps 10 percent, inclusionary requirement on large market-rate projects (meanwhile charging a significant in-lieu fee on smaller market-rate projects).

• Look into ADU zoning that would allow ADUs big enough for families to be built in R1 zones.

• Reduce or eliminate parking requirements for housing.

But above all, dear planning and housing commissioners, follow Hippocrates. “First, do no harm.” Resist the pseudo-housers.

Thanks for reading.